Fall of Kabul whistleblower accuses UK government of politicising civil service

Josie Stewart said: 'Almost as if their first loyalty (was) to their political leaders rather than to the public'

More than 100 Afghans arrive in the UK as part of the evacuation mission. PA
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A whistleblower fired after revealing details of the British government’s chaotic response to the fall of Kabul has warned that the traditionally-neutral Civil Service has become dangerously politicised.

Civil servants increasingly saw it as their job to protect ministers rather than to serve the public,” Josie Stewart said.

Ms Stewart, a former senior official at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), is taking the Government to court in a case to test the legal protections for whistle-blowers.

“I increasingly saw senior officials interpreting their role as doing what ministers say and providing protections to ministers,” she told the Guardian.

“It was almost as if their first loyalty (was) to their political leaders rather than to the public.

“Essentially people who said ‘yes’ and went along with it and bought into this shift in culture and approach were those whose careers went well. Those who resisted either found themselves buried somewhere or looking for jobs elsewhere.”

Ms Stewart, who now works for the organisation Transparency International, lost her job after giving an interview to the BBC.

She said the change in civil service priorities could be traced back to Boris Johnson’s time as prime minister.

Ms Stewart, who was head of illicit finance at the FCDO, said it was particularly striking in the summer of 2021 as the Afghan capital, Kabul, fell in the face of the Taliban advance.

“The almost entire objective politically was to come out of it looking OK to the UK public, rather than to save lives or fulfil a responsibility to the Afghan people,” she said.

“It was shocking in terms of the scale and how brazen and obvious it was to civil servants working on it.”

She is challenging her dismissal after she spoke anonymously to the BBC only for her identity to be revealed when her unredacted emails were accidentally posted on social media.

In response, a Cabinet Office spokesman said: “The Cabinet Secretary is proud to lead a Civil Service that works day-in, day-out to deliver the Government’s priorities for the people of this country.

“His focus is on ensuring the whole of government is working together to put in place the very best public services for the British people.”

An FCDO spokesman said: “We are rightly proud of our staff who worked tirelessly to evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a two weeks.

“This was the biggest mission of its kind in generations and the second largest evacuation carried out by any country. We implemented lessons learnt from the Afghanistan response in our response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Updated: February 04, 2023, 12:56 AM